Of the many, many people to get angry at the news of an Evil Dead remake, I was never one of them. It helped that I was never emotionally attached to the franchise, and it helped a great deal that I’ve long since given up any impotent rage against the adaptation/rebooting trend in Hollywood. But I had other reasons as well.
First of all, the continuity between movies in the established trilogy was notoriously loose in the first place. Every sequel was like a reboot in itself, so what made this any different? The fact that Ash Williams wouldn’t be the hero this time? Yeah, let’s talk about that.
Bruce Campbell’s signature character had become the face of the franchise, and I’d argue that hurt the film just as much as helped it. For one thing, Ash had become so enormously popular that he overshadowed the Deadites and the Necronomicon completely. It speaks volumes that of all the scenes and moments from all three movies, the only one that really seeped into pop culture at large was the image of Ash Williams with his new chainsaw hand, sawing off a shotgun and uttering the classic “groovy.”
The moment is incredibly heightened, yes, but that just makes it all the more badass. But here’s the thing: It isn’t horror.
The first Evil Dead bills itself as a horror film, but that isn’t really what the movie is famous for. The film is easily much more famous for how creative it was at stretching a dollar, pioneering ways to make amateur films look great on a minimal budget. This had the side effect of giving the movie a sort of schlockiness that directly interfered with the film’s attempts at terror. Take the “tree rape” scene, for example. I doubt that one person in a million who watched that scene was genuinely afraid of what was going to happen. Meanwhile, everyone else was pointing and laughing at the screen for how outrageous and fake it looked.
It’s that unique kind of self-aware dark humor that the franchise went on to embrace in its sequels, both of which were far superior to the original film. So it was that Ash’s run-ins with the Deadites looked gradually less like survival horror and more like slapstick. It was entertaining, to be certain, but it wasn’t really scary.
Fans have spent years clamoring for an Army of Darkness sequel, but let’s be honest: Nobody ever wanted the sequel for its scares, never mind its Deadites. We only ever wanted to see more of Bruce Campbell being awesome as Sam Raimi tortured him some more from behind the scenes. The series could have changed direction entirely, pitting Ash Williams against werewolves or something, and I’ll bet that no one would have complained so long as Campbell and Raimi were both involved and invested in their story.
To be clear, I don’t for a minute blame anyone who claims to be a fan of the original franchise. I absolutely get why those films have gained a cult following, and I don’t think there’s a soul out there who would deny the badass appeal of Bruce Campbell. I’m just saying that maybe the franchise had grown so focused on its hero that the other half of the equation had atrophied.
Luckily, Evil Dead (2013) promoted itself very early on as a genuine horror film. The first trailers showed a film that went back to its basic “cabin in the woods” premise, using it to craft a terrifying movie with all the bells and whistles of a professional development and without the baggage of Ash.
There’s also the involvement of Robert Tapert, one of the original producers on Evil Dead, who exec-produced the remake alongside Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell themselves. This did the movie all kinds of favors. For one thing, I’ve no doubt that Raimi was instrumental in running studio interference, giving Fede Alvarez the freedom to make a film with the bare minimum of Hollywood sheen. More than that, I like to think that Raimi and Campbell both relished the chance of seeing their premise brought to the screen in a way that did justice to their original vision. Of course, after so many years of trying and failing to make a sequel to Army of Darkness, I’m sure there was some measure of relief in passing the torch as well.
I mention all of this background to give you an idea of my expectations going into this film. That way, when I say that Evil Dead (2013) was pretty much everything I thought and hoped it would be, you can get my full meaning.
The film opens with a prologue that establishes the Deadites right out of the gate. We get a glimpse of what they are, how they work, what it takes to kill them, how they manipulate their victims psychologically, how they curse like sailors only wish they could, and how terrifying they can be in general. In other words, the very first thing this remake does is to re-introduce the series antagonists in such a way that they’re made the center of the movie. So far, so good.
Flash forward to the present day, when we meet our poor cast of characters. At the center of the group is Mia (Jane Levy, who mercifully took the role from Lily Collins), a young woman coping with the recent death of her mother. She’s also a junkie who recently OD’ed so badly that she was legally dead for a brief period. Following this incident, Mia goes to her family’s old cabin with the hopes of kicking her addiction.
Four people accompany Mia on her stay. There’s David (Shiloh Fernandez), the estranged older brother who finally comes down to help Mia. There’s Olivia (Jessica Lucas), a registered nurse and the group’s resident skeptic. There’s Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), a high school teacher who’s way too damned curious for his own good. Last is Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), who’s… um… blonde.
Let’s take a closer look at these characters individually. Among this main cast, the best and most interesting of them is easily Mia. For one thing, the “recovering junkie” angle was a very clever excuse for the characters to disregard her lunatic ravings, and a convenient reason for these characters to stay off the grid as well. On a similar note, I was very fond of the device used in this film to keep the characters where they were. In the original film (if I recall correctly), the bridge had been destroyed in such a way that it could only have been paranormal in nature. In the remake, the way is blocked by something that could just as easily be demonic as not. It’s a very nice touch that allows for belief either way. But I digress.
On the subject of Mia, I must tip my hat to Jane Levy. Without giving too much away, she gives what is most certainly the most dynamic performance of the entire film. I was particularly fond of her work in the climax, as well as her outrageously creepy scene just after the tree rape.
Oh, yes. This movie offers its own version of the tree rape scene. Really, the difference between the original tree rape scene and that of the remake is emblematic of the difference between the two movies as a whole. In the first movie, it was just a silly and laughably executed idea for a kill. In the remake, it’s legitimately terrifying. It’s dark, it’s grungy, the effects and the central performance are both great, the whole conceit is much scarier, and it plays a central role in the plot. But there I go, digressing again.
Let’s move on to Olivia and Eric, the two people who should be the smartest ones in the room even though they turn out to be the dumbest. Olivia has an uncanny skill for making the dumbest possible decisions at any given time, while Eric goes and reads the book that quite literally has “DO NOT READ THIS” scrawled in enormous letters on every page. The text has been scratched out in multiple places, for Lovecraft’s sake, and he still puts in the effort to read from the goddamned book!
These two characters represented an interesting conundrum for me. On the one hand, I really wanted these characters to die. On the other hand, the rest of the group kinda needed them. Olivia was the only one of the group with any medical knowledge, and Eric was the only one who knew anything about the Deadites. In point of fact, there actually came a point in the movie when Eric was the only one talking sensibly. Too little too late, I know, but still.
I should also point out that Eric holds some kind of a grudge against David. This is never explained. I have absolutely no idea what went on between them, nor do I know why Eric spent the first half of the movie acting like a sullen prick. It’s a minor problem, I grant you, but a problem nonetheless.
Then there’s Natalie. Who is she? What purpose does she serve? How does she know the other characters and why did they bring her along? Your guess is as good as mine. This character is such a worthless blank slate that I’m honestly amazed she lived so long.
To recap: We’ve got a paranoid junkie, an asshole who’s too curious for anyone’s good, a stubborn skeptic, a worthless blonde… and David. I’m sure you can guess who the hero of the movie is.
Going into this movie, I was told that the film tried not to include Ash Williams or any similar character. Through much of the movie, I was afraid that this would turn out to be a “liar liar pants on fire” situation. Actually, no: Ash would have been an improvement over David. Our protagonist in this film suffers, but never to the comedically extreme lengths that Ash did. Perhaps more importantly, he didn’t have any of the swagger that made Ash so inherently cool and easy to like. David is just a generic horror movie protagonist, nothing more or less.
But then came the last ten minutes of this movie. I thought I had this picture all figured out until it threw some last-minute curveballs and took the characters in unexpected and very interesting directions. I won’t spoil anything except to say that David might start out as the film’s hero, but he quite thankfully doesn’t end as the film’s hero.
Also, Fede Alvarez takes the concept of Deadites into some very strange new territory. He experiments with the source material in some very bold ways, but he’s still quite clearly playing in the sandbox that Raimi built. Aside from the emphasis on slapstick, plenty of essential and recognizable elements from the first trilogy found their way here. You want swooping shots through the forest? You got ’em. Montages of characters building outlandish devices out of scrap? Done. A huge emphasis on bodily fluids and gross-out scares? There’s vomit and mutilations enough to fuel your nightmares for a month. Also, there’s enough fake blood in this movie to fill at least two of the Great Lakes. The film even uses the cabin as a kind of monster in itself, though not to the wickedly demented degree seen in Evil Dead II.
Still, it bears repeating that Alvarez has two huge advantages over his predecessor: 21st century technology and the budget to use it. The visuals in this movie are extraordinary, with a mix of practical and CGI effects that was simply perfect for this material. Granted, Alvarez does use a lot of cliched tricks with camera placement and editing — to say nothing of the overbearing score — and that does tend to telegraph when the scares are coming. Still, that old-fashioned way of filmmaking works nicely for this film. It reinforces the idea that this might have been the film that Raimi made back in the day if his reach was closer to his grasp.
On the other hand, the film seems depressingly noncommittal toward this approach. Sometimes, the characters act and talk in ways that sound more or less rational. They cover all of their bases, ruling out options one by one, easing suspension of disbelief as good horror movie characters do nowadays. But then, all of a sudden, the characters will act in ways that are pathetically, predictably, unforgivably stupid. I can just see the filmmakers sitting in a control room like that of Cabin in the Woods, switching the characters’ intelligence on and off as the plot demands.
And while I’m talking about the script, our first few scenes with the main cast are awful. I know that we only have a few short moments to learn more about these characters before shit hits the fan, but the exposition at the opening is simply atrocious. Diablo Cody is credited as one of the film’s writers, and I’ve come to expect far better dialogue from her than this.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Bruce Campbell does poke his head in after the credits. It isn’t a sequel tease, nor is it really a scene of any kind. I’m not even sure if Campbell was in character. He basically just shows up to say “I’m Bruce Campbell, and I approved this movie.” Though of course he does it in a badass way.
Evil Dead (2013) has been getting some very mixed reviews among my fellow film geeks, and I can understand why. The script is very uneven in quality, our protagonist through most of the movie is a very poor substitute for Ash Williams, there’s precious little of the schlock that Evil Dead fans love about the series, and the horror is comprised almost entirely of Raimi’s trademark bodily fluid scares. Then again, those last two points — in addition to Jane Levy’s performance and the sterling visuals — are part of why I enjoyed this movie so much.
I expect that your enjoyment of this film will be heavily influenced by what you expect from it. Personally, I just wanted to see a movie that brought some new blood (so to speak) and solid terror to a series in dire need of both, all while paying sincere tribute to what came before. Based solely on those criteria, I’d personally call this film a success.